Toolkit: The “See No Evil” or Lookdown

Toolkit: The “See No Evil” or Lookdown

This is the third in a series of posts about the safety and calibration systems used in the New Orleans run of the larp End of the Line. The first was about the OK Check-in and the second about the Tap-Out. The discussion of the Lookdown continues in my next post.

The Lookdown is a bow-out mechanic – that is, a calibration mechanic that allows individual players to fluidly opt out of scenes that other participants are actively engaging in. At End of the Line we used it in two ways:

  1. as a visual cue that the player (rather than the character) was opting out of a situation. Let’s say I as a player walk into a room where sex acts are being simulated. It’s obviously not for real, but it looks real enough, and while everyone else is larping like mad, I perhaps realize that whatever my character feels at the sight (shock, dismay, excitement, inspiration) is not what I feel interested in playing on right now. Then I can use the Lookdown while leaving the room to signal, basically, that the other characters should not follow my character.
  2. as a parallel to the Tap-Out. In End of the Line the Lookdown was how you tapped out if you could not reach the person you were playing with, or if you were interacting with a number of players simultaneously and tapping out seemed impractical. It followed the exact same two step procedure as the Tap-Out, outlined below under “Basic Procedure”.

 

It is absolutely possible to use the Lookdown exclusively for meaning number one (which is what, for instance, New World Magischola did – with an interesting tweak, see further below).

The point of the first usage is to allow for a distinction between:

  • your character being upset and leaving, in which case interesting play is generated only if someone sees this and reacts to it (ideally coming to talk to your character about it, or to beat them up, or whatever fits) and
  • you the player choosing not to engage, in which case of course you do not wish to be interacted with about that.

To enable play on character upset, then, a hand sign to indicate the player is extracting herself from a situation makes perfect sense. This is the “classic” Lookdown, and if you use it in your larp, you will most often give the gesture this meaning only.

However, it is also possible to use the gesture in the way outlined under point 2 above – “parallel to Tap-Out”. The existence of the second usage, then of course also allows the potential third option of using Lookdown as the only gesture for “tap-out” (that is, using Lookdown without allowing the shoulder-tapping gesture). This makes sense in some settings, but not in End of the Line, where many intense situations, like neck-biting, would mean the participants can’t see each other. We needed some kind of tap-out mechanic to allow for continuous calibration within scenes, and decided to go with the ordinary Tap-Out for that.

We also had Lookdown in play in its first meaning, “I do not want to see/play on this”. Therefore, when we realized we also needed a “no-touch” Tap Out, we decided to activate that as an additional meaning for the Lookdown gesture, instead of introducing some additional hand sign. When designing any kind of rules system, especially rules or mechanics to be used in an agitated state, minimizing cognitive load is an important design parameter. Which is big words for “have as few mechanics as possible and make them really easy to remember and use”.

Basic Procedure

  1. lookdownTo perform the lookdown, you raise your hand clearly in front of your eyes like the See No Evil monkey. It makes sense to not actually shield your eyes, so you can see what’s happening in the room, which in practice means you’d keep your hand at brow level and kind of peek out under it (looking down, get it?) or have your hand slightly further away from your face and peek over it. I can’t believe I just used five lines to explain something that you figure out for yourself in a second.
    • If you then turn around and leave, you have used the Lookdown in its first meaning – to opt out of a scene, signalling to the people playing in the scene that they should not follow you, but also not stop – “keep playing, you guys, I’m cool over here”.
    • In the larps I’m involved with, usually this means both the player and the character leaves the situation. For this to work seamlessly, it has to be feasible for any character to walk away from any scene. You can read a little bit more about this in the previous post, which was about about tapping out.
    • If you remain in the situation – assuming of course that the larp is using the Lookdown as a parallel to the Tap-Out – the tap-out procedure is activated as follows.
  2. If someone gestures “Lookdown” and remains in the room, it is essentially a Tap-Out, and everyone stops what they’re doing. Most importantly, if you are holding someone, you release them, to allow them to leave the scene and the room if they want to.
    • If they need to go, they are allowed to go, no questions asked.
    • If they stay, it means they’d like to continue the scene, but with just a little less of whatever was going on. Less screaming, less sexuality, less restriction of movement… Everyone dials it down a bit, and play continues, no OOC language required. (Unless it is required, in which case you speak, but see below)
      • Please remember – no matter whether the player stays or goes, DON’T ASK WHY, DON’T SAY WHY. Not talking about why has a double function. It avoids the creation of a hierarchy of differently valid reasons for self-care. It also creates social protection for people who tap out for very private reasons that they may not want to share.
      • If your mechanics allow for playstyle negotiations, like those of End of the Line did, the player who has looked down (or effectively, tapped out) may offer suggestions on playstyle as long as they don’t say why they have that preference. For instance, “can we continue but without you blocking me in physically? The screaming is fine, you can scream more if you’d like”. It is equally possible to use the Lookdown without allowing this option. As always, it depends on your overall safety design.

 

Credits, Background & Variants
End of the Line (c) Participation Design Agency and White Wolf. Picture by Bjarke Pedersen
End of the Line (c) Participation Design Agency and White Wolf. Picture by Bjarke Pedersen

The “See No Evil” or “Lookdown” is a calibration technique invented this spring in a bar in Oslo, Norway, during a conversation between myself and a bunch of people, in particular Trine Lise Lindahl who suggested the gesture.  A few weeks later in Austin, Texas, I mentioned the technique in my talk at Living Games, from whence it immediately got picked up for some games, including most importantly New World Magischola, where it was also named the Lookdown. NWM’s beatifully integrated safety and calibration systems were by Maury Brown, Sarah Lynne Bowman and Harrison Greene, and have been documented here.

An interesting variant emerged at NWM, where the Lookdown gesture was used, for instance, if a character was late for class, but the player did not want play on their tardiness. (The gesture then doubled as both an “I as a player actually don’t want to see this” and an “I as a player actually don’t want to be seen”). This can make a bunch of sense for all kinds of reasons; maybe the player is late for some medical or other self-care reason and has no energy to get their characters’ head chewed off for something that has nothing to do with the fiction. That said, NWM is a collaborative style larp with a sandbox style and “play for what’s interesting” aesthetic. Just like at End of the Line, getting your character in trouble was explicitly given as advice for a fun experience.

I willingly admit that this “please don’t see me” usage rubs me personally the wrong way, because from the perspective of my larp tradition, why would you ever want to opt out of an opportunity for an interesting scene? Similarly I know many American larpers who worry that more competitive games will break if players have an opportunity of opting out of in-game consequences. (In my original post on this topic, you can read about how a fix to an almost identical mechanic is deployed to counter this worry at Texan Planetfall).

Obviously, when I stop to think for one second, I can think of quite a lot of reasons why being able to slip back into a scene unquestioned is as important as being allowed to slip out as needed. And of course, as I’ve said many times before, what reasons you as a play collective allow for pausing play or opting out of scenes is up to you – but you will usually need a way for players to step out without breaking the larp entirely, for medical and babysitter emergencies if nothing else. Right up there with those practical hard limits in importance is the understanding that players are more important than larps. If a player, for whatever reason, is so agitated they feel they must stop playing, they are per definition not in a state where they are able to play. Which means you need some tool for handling this (as well as a reasonable focus on preventing it).

As always though, these tools are deployed in systems. This means that if New World Magischola was played with exclusively Nordic players, they would have an implicit cultural norm establishing that when I the player am late for in-game class, I will invent some reason for my character to be late also, and then we’d embrace whatever interesting plot that threw our way.

Of course this only works if I trust the players of the classmates and teachers also are playing for what is interesting. If they’re on some kind of power trip about humiliating people and blocking them from plot & play for kicks, then I would not be willing to take that risk. (I’m sure the NWM playstyle isn’t actually like that, but I suspect many players with bad experiences from competitive larps did not fully trust that good and fun play would always emerge from getting your character in trouble).

As always, then, safety and calibration designs have to be understood in the wider context of game mechanics, fictional culture norms, play culture norms, and community design. In the next part of this series, I consider the deployment of the Lookdown in different kinds of systems.

If you like what you’re reading, please consider supporting this blog on Patreon. It is the help of readers like you that make this work possible! The pictures in the post are from the New Orleans run of End of the Line. If you are interested in playing this larp, or in hanging out with other people who are into creating cool stuff in the World of Darkness, your fan fest is coming – sign up to the mailing list on  www.worldofdarkness.berlin
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Basics of Opt-In, Opt-Out Design, Part 2: Why?

Basics of Opt-In, Opt-Out Design, Part 2: Why?

“Opt-in, opt-out design” = designing participation that empowers individual participants to continuously make informed choices about engaging in an experience as well as in specific aspects of that experience.

Opt-in, opt-out design operates on the assumption that to feel curiosity and take initiatives, your player first needs to feel safe. (This is different from being safe, which is important for other reasons, and should be the foundation upon which the feeling of safety is built).

Participants need to feel seen and secure, they need to know they’re in the right place, and have a reasonably good idea of what kinds of experiences and activities they are about to engage in. This makes them not have to worry, which allows them to be present in the moment and explore the actual instance of the experience in a playful, mindful and proactive manner.

Whether your goal is for your participants to game the hell out of a statistics-heavy battle simulation, or to portray personifications of colours and emotions in a poetic non-linear dream larp, they must know what they have signed up for, what they are expected to do next, and how to interact with the experience to find out where to go after that.

The majority of your problems with sad, freaked-out or offended players can be resolved by being really good at communicating what it is you’re offering. When people are already signed up (or even worse: are already on location) it is far too late to reveal information that could change their mind about whether they want to play. They might then feel you have broken an implicit contract, and for instance demand changes in your work, or just drop out really inconveniently at the last moment.

Sometimes these reactions are completely justified! At other times, that player is just at the wrong larp. And that’s usually not the player’s fault either – it’s you who’ve failed at telling them who your event is for.

Why Opting In At Sign-Up Is Not Enough

Tubaline under threat of Messedor Voltemand.  Diegetic.   Photo- CC-BY Petter Karlsson
Tubaline threatened by Messedor Voltemand. CC-BY Petter Karlsson

Explaining what larp is, how larp feels, and what larp can do, is really, really difficult. If we could all do that – if any of us could explain it in a satisfying manner – the hobby would not be ridiculed or dismissed, and our loved ones would not roll their eyes at us when we tell them about our latest games. This means that specifically for a larp or participatory event that is of an entirely new kind or has first-timers present, pre-game communication has very limited utility as a basis for informed choices.

It might not even be possible for first-timers to make informed choices! As we all know, early larp experiences have a tendency to be very powerful regardless of the nature, quality or content of the larp. These experiences are often positive, which is why we keep coming back, but the important thing here is that this basic oomph has to do with larp as a medium, not the specifics of your game.

This oomph, again, is the very thing we’re so bad at communicating. Larpers take it for granted, so if you give them a content warning they will judge it in the context of the power of this medium they already know. A beginner might read the exact same warning and think, for instance, that they read about the topic in question all the time without it being a problem. And then be quite surprised at how different it feels to experiencing something physically in the first person.

Also: emotional reactions to larp are really unpredictable. Sometimes you go into a very intense larp with a brinkplay agenda, to challenge yourself and push your own limits – and you’re fine. Some other time you volunteer to cook at a Harry Potter-themed comedy larp, and have only the thinnest of characters with minimal interaction with the plots of the game, but end up having a meltdown because something about the dynamics among the staff characters reminds you of a really destructive work environment from 20 years ago that you thought you’d forgotten.

Also: participants aren’t great at judging their own limits. They’re typically acceptably good at it, and they are astronomically better at it than you are! But they can’t know exactly, because the variables are just too many. For instance: is this specific content just present in the game in general, or at the core of my character’s story? Will I have slept well the previous night when other physical stressors are introduced? Will my co-players in intense scenes be my friends I’ve signed up with, or strangers twice my size? Etc. And a million times etc.

Burley_CC-BY Petter Karlsson
Burley, the Ambassador’s assistant. CC-BY Petter Karlsson

Also: many larps have a very long time between buying a ticket and arriving at the venue. Any participant judgements made several months before an event will have been made in a completely different context. I played a larp last weekend where homophobic violence – treated very seriously – was an integral part of the story. We had all signed up for the game with our eyes open, but we could not possibly know months and months ago that we would be engaging with these themes less than a week after the horrific act of terror at the Pulse club in Orlando. (I may have reason to return to this specific example and its resolution in a later post).

Also: people don’t have the same amount of spoons on different days, let alone different months. They might be much more or much less comfortable, secure, healthy and happy than they were at sign-up. If they need to not play, they obviously shouldn’t, and if they do play, it makes sense to have a built-in way to fine-tune levels of exertion and intensity closer to and during the event. If you do not have a toolkit for this, they may not be able to play, which may leave you with an empty spot, or a participant less well suited to and prepared for the game overall.

Also: participants, even experienced larpers, don’t always believe you when you tell them what the larp will entail. You tell them the scenography is 800 kilos of wheat flour and might kill asthmatics and people with certain allergies; you tell them your sci-fi larp catering includes edible Japanese clay; you tell them you are a great believer in the aesthetics of boredom and will make the characters wait for hours and hours in minimalist environments; you tell them all characters will strip to their underwear; you tell them sex will be simulated by dry humping; you tell them Norwegian mountaintops are really cold even in summer. And they don’t believe you. (In case you didn’t either, these are all real examples). Now this, finally, is something that is not your fault! But it’s still your responsibility, or can become your responsibility to resolve.

ArkonKatrineJaredCornelius_CC-BY Petter Karlsson
Arkon, Katrine and Jared Cornelius. CC-BY Petter Karlsson

For all of these reasons, opting into an event is not enough. You also need to be able to opt out, or opt in progressively, as the event is running. The cool thing about designing for this is that you don’t have to have a binary “either you’re in or you’re out” model. Which would be an asshat move anyway. Especially if you live in a country where people have limited vacation time and will travel long distances to join the experience you’ve promised them.

In fact, if the choice is between participating in something that is not right for you, or not participating at all, most people who have already committed will choose to participate anyway in this thing that is not intended or perhaps not appropriate for them. They might have a good time in the end, but let’s be real: they’ll probably hate it, drag down everyone around them, make your event seem terrible and make you come across as both an inconsiderate asshole and a lousy participation designer.

Since we don’t want that, your event or game needs opt-in, opt-out mechanics that participants can fluidly deploy just before and during run-time  to calibrate their interactions with each other and the fiction. These tools add very little load to your design, since many of their functions are necessary anyway. For instance, if your players are already able to pause the gameplay to negotiate conflict stats or inform each other of real-world dangers, it is relatively trivial to slip in some mechanics that empower them to take better care of themselves and their co-players during the experience.

To Be Continued…

How this is done is the topic of this whole blog, but in the next few posts I’ll continue this walk-through of opt-in, opt-out basics. What are some of the structural effects on your larp (both inside and outside of the fiction) if you want to empower your players to leave or stay, and intensify or de-escalate, at any time? What are some tested, practical methods for doing this?

PS…

Verro the paparazzi and Kristian Strato.  Portrait.   Photo- CC-BY Petter Karlsson
Verro the Papparazzo and Kristian Strato. CC-BY Petter Karlsson

Related issues that I promise to elaborate on in later posts:

    • What kinds of things, exactly, will people need to know before signing up to participate so that both you and they feel their decision is informed?
    • Is opt-in design even possible in games with very low transparency? (Hint: yes!)
    • Are there practical tools to use in pre-game communication to enable and enhance opt-in structures? (Hint: yes!)
    • What if I want my players to opt into really intense stuff, for instance simulated torture – can it be done without a hundred pages of text detailing every possible act that could take place? Can it be done without massive spoilers? (Hint: yes and yes!)
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All pictures in this blog post are from the larp Inside Hamlet and taken by Petter Karlsson. The two-day game used a mostly successful opt-in, opt-out design structure that allowed play on depravity and violence, as well as sexual content, in a mechanics-light environment where real alcohol was served. Visit the game’s web site for a gallery of dramatic images by John Paul Bichard.

Basics of Opt-In, Opt-Out Design, Part 1: Introductory Talk

My keynote from the Living Games Conference 2016 has been released, and having first re-watched it in that cringing way one always does I’m actually now quite happy to share it!

It covers an insane amount of ground in 20 minutes, all of which this blog will go into in depth later. (I’m also referencing talks that John Stavropoulos and Maury Brown gave just before mine; they’re really good and you should check them out).

 The Core Claim of my Talk:
  • Unless you are very, very skilled at larp and interaction design…
  • and unless you know your players, their expectations, and their comfort levels really, really well…
  • …the baseline for your safety and participation thinking should be opt-in, opt-out design.

This talk is the starting point for a series of blog posts covering the basics of opt-in, opt-out design. Why do it? What is it for? How does it work?

If you’d like an introduction, this 20-minute video is not bad. If you hate watching videos online, and loooooove long posts with a lot of words in them, I promise everything in that video will be covered on the blog over the next few weeks!

EDIT: The slides have ben requested. They’re here: LivingGamesSafety2016. If you want to think about the diagrams in more detail, you can find those bits in these earlier blogposts.

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